University students sign petition opposing Detroit Center for Innovation

Sunday, November 3, 2019 - 6:51pm

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Design by Lizzy Rueppel

In response to the recent announcement, the University of Michigan will work with the city of Detroit to build a $300 million Detroit Center for Innovation, University students created a petition urging the University to reconsider the facility. According to an email from University President Mark Schlissel, the education and research complex will provide undergraduate and graduate teaching in subjects like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and technology. 

The petition specifically condemns the University’s choice to build the Center on the failed site of the proposed Wayne County jail, the construction of which was halted in 2013 when the project went $91 million over its initial budget. It also criticized the University for investing in Detroit Renaissance Real Estate Fund LP, a firm with ties to a string of evictions in Detroit. 

“Yet with this decision, the University Administration signals its priorities in Detroit do not lie with Detroiters,” the petition reads. “Surely, a genuine commitment to the city would not include investing in a company that profits off of evicting Detroiters from their homes, despite criticism from students and community members on the investment. Nor would it ignore plans from the Detroit Justice Center to develop a restorative justice initiative on the once-failed jail site where the Innovation Center will now lie.”  

The petition, which was started by One University spokesperson and LSA junior Amytess Girgis, calls on the University to discuss future building plans with residents of Detroit and consider the needs of the city’s population. As of publication, almost 200 people have signed the petition. Girgis said the University should consult with community members in Detroit in addition to students doing work in the city before they plan any major construction. 

“I really think the University of Michigan administration needs to involve faculty and students who have been doing work in Detroit and will continue doing work in Detroit in a very informed way,” Girgis said. “I think the University, going forward, needs to really be aware of the dissent that is happening over the gentrification of this so-called innovation center.”

In a recent interview with The Daily, Schlissel said the University will partner mainly with real estate mogul and University donor Stephen Ross’s development firm and businessman Dan Gilbert’s real estate firm to develop the 14-acre center. Schlissel said the Center aims to expand the reach of the University’s academic programs, specifically those related to technology.  

“Our role is to set up educational and research programs that help drive the entrepreneurial and technology part of the Detroit economy so that new businesses form and existing companies grow and they don’t leave Detroit and, ultimately, the economy does well enough to provide more jobs for more people,” Schlissel said. “So that’s a pretty good thing. It’s not competitive — it’s sort of additive to what the University is doing.” 

Stephen Ward, associate professor in the department of Afroamerican and African studies and faculty director of the Semester in Detroit program, commented on the implications of building the center on a former jail site. Ward said other plans for the distribution of resources on the land, which is situated in a historically Black neighborhood hurt by urban renewal in the 20th century, do not take residents’ needs into account and may not directly benefit the population. 

“None of (these plans) are more community-based and speak to the needs of a broader serving of the population,” Ward said. “All of (them) envision or project a different vision for the direction of the city, from which, it seems to me, this Innovation Center is pointing.”

Ward also noted the placement of the center on a planned jail site is problematic, especially considering the large racial disparities in the Wayne County criminal justice system. According to a fact sheet from the Detroit Justice Center, 70 percent of people in Wayne County jails are black, compared to 39.7 percent of the county’s total population. Ward said this fact, and the University’s choice to partner with Ross and Gilbert, show how the University is not interested in creating programs that uplift the community. 

“The Innovation Center seems to be geared towards people like Dan Gilbert,” Ward said. “Dan Gilbert and Stephen Ross are scoundrels. I’m not saying that as name-calling; I’m saying that as the word means — scoundrel means people who can’t be trusted. I don’t think they can be trusted to act in ways that enact new visions for the city and can help the majority of people in the city. I think their efforts in the past, and this is consistent with that, are geared towards themselves and those they’re connected to.”

Schlissel said the University’s history of community-centered programs in Detroit, including its work on the Poverty Solutions initiative, reflect the University’s commitment to developing programs and institutions that benefits Detroit residents. 

“Most of (our projects) involve things where we’re working with the Detroit public K-12 school students,” Schlissel said in a recent interview with The Daily. “So, this (center) is another of a series of projects we’re doing where we look for opportunities to fulfill the University’s mission of research and teaching in ways that have benefits to the public we serve and, in this case, in Detroit.”

Girgis said she and other students working more directly in Detroit disagree with the idea that the center will positively impact those currently living in the city. Instead, Girgis said she hopes the petition will involve students in the conversation about the center in ways they were not before the decision was announced. 

“The University did not, in coming to the decision to build this Innovation Center, consult with the faculty, the students, the various organizations affiliated with the University that are working in Detroit,” Girgis said. “It just announced this decision, said that they were doing it, and felt the need to send a long email explaining why it’s so helpful for the city of Detroit and ‘its people.’ I think all of those for me put up a lot of red flags about what the University’s interests are with this Innovation Center.”